Gina Riley’s daughter makes her debut as Muriel Heslop in the new musical based on the iconic Australian film.

Maggie McKenna was in Los Angeles doing an acting course when friends of hers told her that they had auditioned for the new Australian stage show Muriel’s Wedding The Musical. She immediately phoned her Australian agent to see if she could submit a video audition for the role of Muriel Heslop – played in the film by Toni Collette.

Maggie McKenna. Photograph © James Green

After returning to Australia for a recall, and taking part in a two-week workshop, co-producers Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures announced today that McKenna has landed the title role in the new Australian musical based on the iconic 1994 Australian film, written and directed by PJ Hogan.

McKenna is the daughter of actor/comedian Gina Riley – best known as Kim in the television comedy series Kath & Kim – and television producer Rick McKenna. Riley has, in fact, also performed in a musical for STC – Falsettos in 1994.

Twenty-year old McKenna recently returned from LA where she trained at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Muriel’s Wedding The Musical marks her professional stage debut.

“It’s a very exciting opportunity, I’m still wrapping my head around all of it pretty much,” McKenna tells Limelight, adding that her parents have “really helped me with dealing with all the pressure of this.”

In a measure of how eagerly anticipated the musical is, there was a huge turnout at today’s media launch. The performance of a catchy song from the show about Sydney – where everyone is accepted as long as you’re not a parking attendant – only heightened excitement levels and expectations.

The musical stage adaptation has a book by PJ Hogan and music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and her husband Keir Nuttall. It will also include the ABBA songs famously used in the film. Simon Phillips directs with his long-time collaborator Gabriel Tylesova designing set and costumes.

Addressing the assembled media, Phillips said that adapting the film as a musical was “a no-brainer. It was the remaining Australian film to be turned into an Australian musical… This is the one that had to happen.”

Keir Nuttall, Kate Miller-Heidke, Simon Phillips, PJ Hogan and Gabriela Tylesova. Photograph © James Green

Stuck in a dead-end life in small-town Porpoise Spit, Muriel is obsessed with ABBA and dreams of getting married as a way of escaping and becoming a new person. Moving to Sydney, she starts trying on extravagant wedding dresses, and looking for a groom.

Phillips and Hogan said that the musical has been updated from the 1990s to today, feeling that the story sits perfectly in the social media age. “It’s a story essentially of a young woman who wants to be famous to prove her detractors wrong but she has no discernible talent for anything. Muriel would be a YouTube star now. She’d take to Twitter… had reality TV been there 25 years ago, Muriel would have signed up in a minute,” said Hogan.

Casting the role of Muriel was a challenge, said Hogan. “When I made the film, Muriel was a difficult part to cast. So my smile was huge when I met Toni Collette. Almost 25 years later I smiled that same smile when I met Maggie McKenna.”

McKenna that she believed “everyone can really relate to Muriel because everyone at some time in their life feels like a bit of an outsider, and Muriel is definitely that. But also she’s a bit of a dork and she likes to have a bit of a laugh … she’s not the typical leading lady and I think audiences will really like that.”

Speaking to Limelight about the music, Miller-Heidke and Nuttall said that they leapt at the opportunity to write the lyrics and music. “It seemed like the perfect project, something that would be really well served by the genre of a musical. Not all stories do, but in this case the characters seem to really sing and the story did have also a beautiful, tragic arc to it as well, so for me it had all the elements,” says Miller-Heidke.

“Absolutely,” agrees Nuttall. “The vitality of the characters is a big thing in musicals. We’d been looking for a musical to collaborate on for a while. We’ve collaborated on Kate’s pop stuff usually, and we had looked at a couple of other ideas, but we were really searching for a story. And then when this came along, it was like a dream come true, because it really feels [suited to] what we both do individually and together. It is very much set in a universe we are both very familiar with, in Queensland. [Miller-Heidke was born in Brisbane and Nuttall in Toowoomba]. Also, it fits our aesthetic [in terms of] storytelling and humour.”

The music is “pretty firmly rooted in modern pop music,” says Miller-Heidke. “The story has been transplanted to the modern day. There are a lot of new elements relating to that, to do with social media and celebrity. In a way, as PJ was saying, the story is more relevant today than ever, and he’s really brought out a lot of those elements, and it’s brilliant what he’s done with it. And so the score reflects that. It also helps to set us apart from ABBA, because that was always one of the big challenges, how to weave those pre-existing songs through it – some of the best pop songs ever written.”

“The problem of ABBA, if I can put it that way, is ingeniously dealt with. We can’t say exactly how yet, but it makes theatrical sense. But from a musical level, we needed to differentiate our original songs from the textures of [ABBA],” adds Miller-Heidke.

“It’s amazingly intimidating of course to be put next to [ABBA’s] Waterloo, but that was such a key song in the movie – and it is in the musical as well,” says Nuttall.

Cast members announced today include Justine Clarke as Muriel’s long-suffering mother Betty, Helen Dallimore as beauty consultant Deidre Chambers, and Christie Whelan Browne as new bride Tania Degano, one of the girls who make Muriel’s life a misery. Muriel’s two love interests are played by Ben Bennett as Brice Nobes, the first guy to ask her out on a date, and Stephen Madsen as Olympic swimming hopeful, now a Russian called Alexander Skhuratov.

Annie Aitken, Kaeng Chan, Briallen Clarke, Tony Cogin, Manon Gunderson Briggs, Sheridan Harbridge, Mark Hill, Adrian Li Donni, Kenneth Moraleda, Laura Murphy, Josh Quong Tart, Connor Sweeney, Aaron Tsindos and Michael Whalley will also perform in the show, with several more ensemble members yet to be named.

The roles of Muriel’s bestie Rhonda (played in the film by Rachel Griffiths) and Muriel’s father are also still to be cast.

Muriel’s Wedding The Musical plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, November 6 – January 27. It then goes to Toronto.